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On an Economic Solution: Radio Essay for October 15, 2011

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On an Economic Solution: Essay for October 15, 2011

If anybody can tell me what is going on with the Occupy Wall Street crowd, as Ross Perot once said, “I am all ears.” Are these people really victims of an economic malaise or a rabble encouraged by the unseen hand of conflicting sources?

It matters not to me. Whether they know it or not, whether they are tools or not, they are card carrying members of the Lost Generation. Their economic future is in the hands of someone else. Their choices are limited and their futures are in doubt. Surely, they are doing nothing to improve their economic situation by squatting in a park and mindlessly ranting on television.

Some would have us debate the threshold of wealth as if the taxation of the wealthiest of society would be enough to free us from the shackles of reckless financial management. “Tax the rich; feed the poor, till there are no rich no more.” And if it could not, and it will not: then what? We will still have a lot of people out on the streets, young and old asking the question: Whatever happened to my American Dream?
I could rant on and on about the many issues before us in this great land: the social issues, the personal liberty issues or the foreign policy issues. They pale in comparison to the economic issues.

It must be our solemn quest to restore opportunity to our countryman. This must be goal Number One. If our economy is not functioning, we will be focusing on the wrong debate at the wrong time. Perhaps we can set aside the rhetoric that panders to the primary fringe voters from both parties and focus on the one true issue in this campaign that should rightly dominate our discussions: the faltering economy.
The “fix” is not a simple one. Nor can it be simply stated. It calls for a concerted effort between government, business and education. It must start now. Time is catastrophically short. The overall fix is long term but it is one that will begin to yield results immediately.

There are three legs to the stool we must address immediately and well.

First, there is the business component. Simply stated, we must retain a manufacturing base that leans towards high technology and high value added activity. We must dispense with the image of manufacturing as a dirty and menial job. Modern plants of today demand highly skilled workforces who often work in office or laboratory-like conditions.

Secondly, we must revise our system of education. It must align itself with the manufacturing sector. We need to focus our efforts on the four pillars of science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM subjects. These disciplines will serve to support the expansion and further development of the manufacturing sector.

Finally, there is a role for government. It was less than 30 years ago that the federal tax code was revised to give the United States the lowest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world. It worked. Direct investment soared. The economy soared. Over time the rest of the world followed suit in lowering rates while our rates crept back up to where they are now. America is number one in having the highest corporate tax rate in the world. It is a dubious distinction. Direct investment, both foreign and domestic, is shrinking. Additionally, our regulatory burden is unnecessarily high. It is ambiguous. It is prohibitive. Our regulations must be focused on the common good of society not bureaucracy. The last meaningful review of regulations took place during the Clinton Administration. Our agencies have remained unchecked throughout the last decade.

Andrew Liveris is the Chairman of Dow Chemical. He heads up the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership initiative under the Obama Administration. He leans a little towards the left but makes eminent sense in his book, “Make It in America.” His recommended path is clear. First, make it easier for businesses to remain or locate in the United States. Second, remake the manufacturing sector into an advanced, high-value added industry. Third, create an economy that can sustain itself through long term job creation and economic growth. Fourth, prepare the next generation’s workforce for the challenge of a changing economy. And, fifth, improve America’s global competitiveness for the near and long term. I concur.

Amid the cacophony of the choruses from left and right there must be a way forward that both parties can agree upon. It is of no use to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. To carry the metaphor, we have already struck the iceberg. It is time to save the ship.

Press on.

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On Lessons from a Stimulated Economy: Radio Essay for October 8, 2011

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On Lessons from a Stimulated Economy

We can’t get temporary help these days. It’s not that the help isn’t any good, it’s just that they disappear to competitive job offers before we can even get them to interview. It is quite a job market- in Singapore.

I find myself in Singapore this week and the flagging world economy is not in evidence here. The unemployment rate is a mere 1.7%. The malls are full and the lines for taxis are long. The real estate market is robust. Everywhere I turn I see an optimistic outlook. As the saying goes, the national bird is the building crane.

Would that this optimism find its’ way to Massachusetts: to Palmer or Ludlow or Milford. It has not but it could be so. To think otherwise is to abandon hope that the dynamo of the world economy is out of gas. There is no better asset to a community than a true manufacturing base. Manufacturing returns two dollars to the community for each dollar spent. That is four times better than the return from retail. The US economy is still the 800 lb. gorilla on the world stage but it is under attack mostly from within.
Here is the rub. Our institutions are failing us. Our high schools are not providing competent graduates to feed the thirst created by manufacturing. Yes, I said manufacturing. You can not be a successful assembly line worker in this country if you cannot add value in the form of reading blueprints or interpreting work instructions. Those are openers. By the way, the workforces in other countries have those skill sets without remediation. Corporations should not have to provide the education that secondary schools have failed to provide. It is far easier and more cost effective to look towards other places to get these simple tasks done. They look abroad to places like Singapore where nearly every able bodied person who wants to work does so. It is an insurance policy on stable productive output.

Take machining, for example. Our aging manufacturing workforce has no replacements in the pipeline. In our region, everyone is fishing from the same pond when it comes to filling vacancies as the demographic of the workforce ages. Expansion becomes a moot point if you struggle to hire qualified replacements. The vocational schools are not producing skilled graduates because there are simply no entrants. A career in machining can be a lucrative one and one that is creative. You can earn a solid living and support a family on its wages. Over the next 5-10 years, machine shops in Massachusetts will face difficult decisions about remaining in business. Their communities will absorb yet another blow. Death by a thousand cuts.

We can talk about the other factors that the government should consider when tinkering with the economy but what can be more important to building the employment numbers than having qualified people to participate in the growth? Not everyone needs to or should go to college. What they need is an education that is appropriate for their ambition. And that ambition should be nurtured without prejudice through exposure to all sorts of career opportunities as they proceed through school.

The good news is that we have a pipeline already established through the vocational-technical schools. The infrastructure is in place but the pipeline is not fully primed. We can jumpstart that process by opening the programs to adults interested in job enhancement or retraining. We can do that in the evening or we can do that side-by-side with daytime students. There is a frequent outcry from our citizenry to expand the footprints of community colleges into the suburban landscape. This is well and good but let us not forget the vital role that our vo-techs can immediately play in providing assets right now to our fragile manufacturing capability.

So I spend another day in a country that has found a way to provide the proper educational mix to support its industry and national objectives. We in Massachusetts have the tools at hand to mimic this successful model. We should do it now before the erosion of our manufacturing base becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Press on.

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On Security and Liberty: Radio Essay for October 1, 2011

My first airplane ride was unforgettable. I was a 14 year old Boy Scout en route to the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. The Boeing 727 was a passenger/cargo configuration that left LaGuardia airport on an evening flight making stops in Nashville and Memphis before heading west to Colorado Springs. Who could sleep? The choreographed hum on the tarmac; boarding not through a jetway but from stairs; the roar of a JT9 engine on takeoff and the ear splitting whine at altitude; the reds and blues and whites of the taxiways and runways at night. It was easily 3 AM before I fell asleep.
Air travel was alluring and exotic then. The Mutual of Omaha insurance kiosks reminded us that the dangers of flying were generally limited to full blown disaster and the occasional hijacking to Cuba. I cannot recall much in the way of airport security and visitors were free to come and go to meet and greet you as your flight landed.

Fast forwarding some 42 years to my experiences this week provides quite a contrast. You know all-to-well the drill. First one shows ID at check-in and shows it again for the privilege of going through security. The latest indignity begins at that moment when one has to empty the computer into a separate bin and place shoes, belt, pocket contents, and all liquids into another before going into the screening booth that reveals more about your anatomy to a stranger than you are probably willing to disclose to your physician. You can be swabbed for nitrates and patted down for who-knows-what. Long gone is the innocence of that classically romantic airport farewell between Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund in the movie Casablanca. The intrigue of flight and flying that captured the imagination of so many youngsters who, like me, used to hang out at the end of runways watching airport traffic has been traded for some sense of security that comes from proscription.
I’ve been traveling like mad since the mid 70’s. Airplanes and airports have been the target of choice for would-be villains of the skies for nearly half a century. I recall receiving some counsel back in the 80’s from a CIA agent who suggested carrying a Sunday New York Times in my briefcase in order to shield my body in the event of gunfire as I traveled through European airports. I wonder if a Kindle would do the trick.

All of this caution and willing dilutions of personal liberty are appropriate responses to the threat of terror and the responsible thing to do aren’t they? If our security consciousness were contained to airports I might be able to compartmentalize the experience as a focus of security necessity.

Here is where I get skittish. Scott Pelly recently interviewed NYPD Chief Raymond Kelly on 60 Minutes. Kelly runs a police department that is larger than either the United States Coast Guard or the FBI. It has its own navy, including submersibles and surface craft equipped with nuclear detection equipment that is sensitive enough to sense yachtsmen who have had recent radiation therapy. It is an army of 45,000 police augmented by 10,000 more civilians and its air force has the capability to shoot down aircraft, presumably civilian airliners turned into missiles.

All of this manpower is fed by sophisticated intelligence on the ground in all corners of the globe. The NYPD has officers in Riyadh, Baghdad, Singapore, London, Belfast and Islamabad, just to name a few cities. All of this feeds the intel beast. And here is where the slippery slope grows more so.
There is an underground bunker in New York City at a secret location. I’m not making this up. CBS took us there on a tour during the Kelly interview. The intelligence center processes all of the information collected from its myriad of sources. Those sources include some 2000 video cameras, soon to number 3000 cameras, spread across the city streets. They have the ability to automatically track left baggage and dispatch bomb squads to locations across the city.
Impressive capabilities, to be sure, but this is where chills went down my spine. The camera system has the ability to find and track a suspect by description. They demonstrated how a suspect in a red shirt could be culled out from a crowd and tracked across the city. Immediately, anyone wearing a red shirt in range of 2000 cameras became a suspect worth following. That might or might not include the person of interest but it would certainly include hundreds or perhaps thousands of innocent and unsuspecting citizens.

My law professor at Kings Point, Captain Laurence Jarrett, once said, “The right to swing your arm ends at my nose.” I know that the days of unfettered access to airports and airplanes is not going to return in my lifetime. That has been ceded to the War on Terror. And who would argue that pursuing the criminal terrorist is wrong? I am all in favor of pursuing the jihadist bent on terrorism.

The incremental usurpations in the name of security are transforming our society in ways that we could never have imagined only 10 years ago. These tools are used to close the net on the enemies of the state. The time that I am concerned about is when the NYPD is directed to divert its’ tracking from the suspect in the red shirt in favor of the suspect holding a Gadsden flag. Whom we place at the helm of this ship of state grows increasingly important. The public discussion of what liberties we are willing to cede to the state is needed now lest we incessantly redact portions of the Constitution.

As the novelist Henry Miller reminds us, “The man who looks for security, even in the mind, is like a man who would chop off his limbs in order to have artificial ones which will give him no pain or trouble.”

Exchanging liberty for security is not an even trade.

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On Security and Liberty: Radio Essay for October 1, 2011

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The Tom Wesley and John Weston Review: September 24, 2011

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